Discover a Global Saskatchewan
through Chris Dekker
Interim President & CEO, The Global Transportation Hub
What are your responsibilities within your current position?
The role of a CEO is to make sure the environment, culture and processes of an organization are optimized so that the people you’ve hired, those with expertise, can do their job and do it well. This notion is similar to our mandate for economic development in the province - create the best business climate, regulatory environment, and competitive tax regime so that a business can do what it needs to do, and then stay out of their way. And so it is at the GTH – create a state-of-the art logistics park for businesses to do what they do best.
How long have you held that that position?
What does your company gain by being international?
We are an export-dependent province in an export-dependent country. We’re a province of 1.1 million people and growing faster than any other province, so we have a limited market for our goods within the province. Therefore, we need to be an export-province, and we have to be international. We have to understand our markets; we have to be constantly looking for new markets. And, for the GTH, we need to understand the logistics and infrastructure that takes our products to market.
Saskatchewan also gains from international exposure in terms of foreign direct investment (FDI), which brings new capital investment, new capacities, and new innovations - all of which lead to increased productivity. So it’s not just us going out to the world, it’s also us inviting the world to Saskatchewan.
What other positions have you held with an international focus?
Previously, I was the CEO of Enterprise Saskatchewan, which became part of the Ministry of Economy. Enterprise’s role was to act as the primary economic development agency for the province, which involved a number of programs and services including assisting small businesses, promoting industry, monitoring and reporting on the provincial economy, and developing foreign direct investment.
What first interested you in international business and how did you first get involved?
When I first received my Commerce degree I understood that there were limited opportunities in Saskatchewan – as it was for many young people at that time. I realized that I had to think “larger” in that context. My career arc took me through Maple Leaf Foods in Edmonton and then into executive government in Saskatchewan - first by being hired by the Provincial Minister of Revenue and Financial Services, and then as the Executive Assistant for the Minister of Health, and finally as the Assistant Press Secretary to the Premier. Through the eyes of a young official within the Office of the Premier, I really began to appreciate the international world and the importance it had for the future of Saskatchewan.
What kind of training or degree does your position require? Is there any training you wish you would have had?
I graduated with a double major in Marketing and Finance, but Marketing was my passion. I believe there is an element of marketing in every job and every project, so there’s no question that my degree has helped me every step of the way. As for international training I wish I would have had, it would have been to learn a second language. Back when I graduated it would have been French, but now it would be Mandarin Chinese. Languages can take you a long way in international business, and if you recognize that early enough, it will be a great benefit for your career.
What skills have you picked up abroad that have been the most useful in your business career?
An awareness of and appreciation for cultural differences and the different ways of doing business in different areas of the world. For the most part, the differences aren’t large, but when you start travelling to places such as the Middle East and the Far East, you really have to step up your game. You have to keep your ears and eyes open and always be watching and listening, rather than always talking.
What countries have you travelled to for business?
The United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Israel, Jordan, the Netherlands, and Belgium.
Who has been the most interesting person you have met abroad?
You meet a lot of people overseas, even celebrities. For instance, I met Mike Myers at the Canada Day Celebrations at Trafalgar Square. I asked the Lord Mayor of London to take a picture of Mike and me, but all I got was a big blurry picture of the Lord Mayor’s thumb! However, the most interesting person I’ve met was not a celebrity, a business person, or a politician - it was Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, who I met in the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem. I went to shake her hand, and she stopped me and said “I’m sorry, but for religious reasons I cannot shake your hand, but I am with my heart.” And I said “I understand, and I’m shaking yours with mine.” We had an unbelievable chat; she was a survivor of the Holocaust, and later I Googled her and found that she was a renowned Orthodox female Torah personality. It was a spiritual experience, and she was absolutely fascinating.
What are the biggest communications barriers you’ve encountered while doing business abroad?
Translation – more specifically, the speed and accuracy of translation. Translation works and it’s necessary, but you have to trust the translator. We often have someone on-staff who speaks the language that we’re dealing in, and who can make sure that the translations are accurate on both sides.
What has been the most significant business trip you have been on?
My first real experience with international travel and international business was when we went to Brussels, Belgium for the Uruguay Round of the GATT Negotiations in 1990. These negotiations were absolutely critical for Saskatchewan at the time, as we were still largely an agriculturally based economy. We were not completely comfortable having the Federal Government represent Saskatchewan’s interests, so we went as an observer delegation. We brought along trade expertise but we also needed to get our message across on an international stage, so we hired the chief negotiator for Canada in the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement, Simon Reisman, who opened more doors than we could have ever imagined. International business is a lot of work and a lot of stress, but if you get one small success, it’s pretty hard not to get hooked on it. We certainly punched above our weight in Belgium and came away with a lot of interest in the province, as well as establishing a distinct Saskatchewan identity at home and abroad.
What has been the longest time you have spent abroad for business?
No more than a week to 10 days.
When traveling for business, do you prefer to travel directly in-and-out, or do you take your time?
In and out. My trips are always mission-oriented, and with fiscal responsibility in mind. You know, we are always asking “What’s the cheapest way to get there? Where’s the most efficient place to stay? What’s the cheapest way to get out?” without jeopardizing the mission.
What can Saskatchewan businesses and businesspeople do to continue to make Saskatchewan an international business centre?
Wherever they go, businesses should not only sell their product, service, or value proposition, they should also sell the province at the same time. International customers and clients need to know that where you do business is business-friendly, that they have a good regulatory regime, a competitive tax structure, a government that is supportive; that it’s a secure, growing and exciting place. It’s a team- approach that comes with promoting your own goods and services.
What advice would you give to someone who is interested in a career in international business?
Learn a second language. Learn about business cultures and international business practices, at least at a low level. You can also pick a geographic area of interest, like Asia-Pacific or Eastern Europe, and learn all you can. Lastly, become involved with organizations like the Hanlon Centre or AIESEC. Not only do you learn the basics of international business, but you start to live the culture as you’re studying and working with people who have the same interest and mindset. There are all sorts of opportunities at the college level and you just have to get involved.
What opportunities are currently available to those who want to pursue a career in international business?
Aside from the Hanlon Centre or AIESEC, there are many service groups like the Rotary Club who will often send students on international trips. There are all sorts of opportunities to travel and learn abroad, if you go out and look for them.
What’s next for your company, internationally?
For the GTH, we are actively searching for a third anchor client – preferably a major importer or exporter of goods who can use the unique transportation infrastructure we have developed. To assist in this initiative, we have developed a national and international business development strategy that may take us abroad.
Which countries are your favourites to do business in?
The United States of America. Some might think “What? That’s not a foreign country.” But it is - and the USA is our number one source for FDI, our number one export market, and our number one business opportunity. Also, the business culture is the same, we speak the same language, they are geographically close, and they’re frank and tough businesspeople. What’s not to like?
What has been your best experience or adventure abroad?
Israel was definitely one of the most remarkable places I’d ever been. It was interesting to learn that Israel is the startup nation of the world. They have more companies listed on the NASDAQ than all of Europe, and we wanted to find out why. If necessity is the mother of invention, so must it be for innovation. Israel has little beyond rocks and trees and has enemies on every border, so they need to be self-reliant and develop a knowledge-based economy to survive and thrive. Another reason is that the Israeli entrepreneurial culture is entirely different. Business failure isn’t seen as a mark against you – it’s an integral part of risk and reward. If you’ve learned from the experience, they’re still willing to give you financial assistance because you’re more likely to be a better entrepreneur in the future. Failure is not a dirty word, and neither is profit.
What has been your best culinary experience overseas?
My best culinary experience was a Korean barbeque restaurant in downtown London, of all places. The food was unbelievable. My mostinteresting culinary experience was in Brussels, Belgium, where I had the opportunity to try calf’s brains, which is something I’ll never forget.
What do you miss most about Saskatchewan while abroad?
My family - my wife and two boys. They are always top of mind.
What is your favourite souvenir from abroad?
I don’t bring back many souvenirs, but I bring back my nametag from every conference I’ve been to. I don’t know how or why I started this, but I have dozens. I guess my favourite international souvenir is a piece of the Berlin Wall – complete with graffiti.
What is your absolute favourite travel destination?
I haven’t travelled to enough places to say I’ve got a favourite. The international cities I’ve been to most are Los Angeles and London, which are both beautiful cities with amazing cultures (although on two different levels obviously). But between the two, I definitely prefer London – the international centre of finance.
What is your favourite way to travel?
Flying. There’s no faster way to get to your destination.
Are you a window or aisle person?
Aisle. I don’t want the window because I’ve seen most of what’s out there, and if you have to get up, the aisle seat means you don’t have to say, “excuse me.”
On an airplane, do you chat with your neighbors or are you politely quiet?
Politely quiet. No one can sustain a conversation for eight hours – although some have tried.
What is your favourite pastime while travelling?
In-flight movies. Nothing can pass two hours quicker than a movie.
What is your packing philosophy?
Light, tight and efficient. One suitcase and a carry-on.
If we opened up your carry-on luggage, what might we find?
My iPad and my files. When you land, you’ll either be working that day or the day after; if you’ve got eight hours of flight-time , you might as well put it to good use.
What is one item you never travel without?
My iPad. It’s an all-in-one computer, travel guide, map, alarm clock, file folder, and communications tool.
In a few words, how would you describe Saskatchewan's international trade success?
The world is growing and, in some cases, exponentially. Saskatchewan has what the growing world “needs” – not what the world “wants”. In economic downturns, ‘wants’ are the first things you don’t buy. ‘Needs” can be recession-resistant.
Although it appears to be a recent development, most people are unaware that Saskatchewan has been a significant global exporter for decades. Why do you think this has been largely unknown?
Because we’ve done it quietly. We’ve always just “done the job”, and never really sold it. We’ve never made an effort to grow our markets. Now that we’re an export leader and the economy is on fire, we’re finally on the radar and we need to take advantage of that. Real success doesn’t just happen; you have to go out and make it work.
How important is getting your name out there and building a professional network globally to a career in international business?
It’s critical. You can graduate with a degree in any discipline and not go anywhere. If you haven’t made those connections, if you haven’t gotten involved, it’s difficult to get noticed. It’s about putting something on that resume that shows that you have an interest, a passion, and have you have some experience in an international capacity. If you step up and show that you have that passion, I think the world is your oyster!